Stretched out along the canal they lie, from Wolvercote to Hythe Bridge, in every shade and hue, from psychedelic hippy swirls, via sensible dark-blue college livery, to load-bearing gunmetal greys and rusty blacks.
And it’s not just the canalboats themselves which fascinate. It’s what’s on their roofs, what’s on their decks, and what’s around them, on the tow-path and the patches of land alongside: tables, fuel cans, bicycles, wheelbarrows, ropes, flowerpots, kindling, solar panels and mini-wind turbines, not to mention cats and the occasional dog …
There’s a whole world here, and a whole history. For the canal, which is now a place for domestic dwelling and day-trip recreation, was once the site of intense work, an industrial artery pulsing through the heart of England. With its opening, on 1 January 1790, Oxford was transformed.
Tons of material poured down these fathom-deep waters – mostly coal from the Midlands, but also pottery and slate. Wharves sprung up along its edges. Their remains can still be conjured up at Juxon Street, Walton Street, and Hayfield Road. The now-reedy air was once thick with the sound of goods being offloaded, the hollers of the men at the waterside, the clip of hooves and the clinking of dray horse harnesses …
A few years ago there were dastardly plans to ‘develop’ the Jericho boatyard to create ‘affordable’ (i.e. expensive) housing; but the noble citizens of that parish banded together to scotch the scheme and insist on their own community centre and boatyard. One of their doughtiest supporters, Mark Davies, who has lived on the canal for nearly thirty years, leads fascinating towpath walks, unlocking the waterway’s rich and characterful history.
There is occasional talk of opening up the canal basin beyond Hythe Bridge once more. What a wonderful thing it would be if such a marina could be created in the heart of the city! (But think how much car parking revenue would be lost to Nuffield College.)
It’s still a favourite walk, along the towpath, past the swans, ticking off the names of the canalboats on the way, admiring their different personalities – and peering over to the gardens on the other side of the bank, where life still seems to flourish in all its variety.
A list of all the named canalboats from Hythe Bridge Street to the Plough Inn, Wolvercote,
on a sunny day in Spring 2019:
Bill the Lizard
Isis Lock Bridge (243)
Jericho Footbridge (242)
Walton Well Bridge (241)
Aristotle Bridge (240)
Frenchay Bridge (239A)
St Edwards (238)
Railway Bridge (236A)
Wolvercote Bridge (236)